Namath, Joe (1943—)

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Namath, Joe (1943—)

"I guarantee it!" Joe Willie Namath's outlandish promise, made poolside in the days preceding the 1969 Super Bowl, angered his own head coach, infuriated his opponents, and helped bring the spirit of the 1960s counterculture into sports. When the New York Jets backed up their 25-year-old quarterback's "guarantee" with a 16-7 upset over the highly favored Baltimore Colts, the new American Football League gained credibility and sealed the success of the upcoming NFL-AFL merger.

While "Broadway Joe" never challenged "establishment" social structures in the manner of the draft-resisting, poetry-spouting boxer Muhammad Ali, his hedonistic "make love, not war" lifestyle infused the strait-laced atmosphere of professional football with an entirely alien cultural attitude. An openly promiscuous user of adults-only substances (he preferred Johnnie Walker Red Label) who partied all night, Namath simply admitted to behavior usually indulged in secrecy by more clean-cut (and more married) jocks. While Namath apparently never smoked pot and his tastes in music (Glen Campbell, The Fifth Dimension) were decidedly not hip, his abhorrence for hypocrisy was a lightning bolt that shattered the value system of professional sports.

Born Joseph William Namath in the steel mill town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1943, the young athlete excelled in many different sports from a very early age. He played high school basketball and was offered a professional baseball contract upon graduation. He decided to play football instead, and he applied to Penn State. However, he failed to attain the minimum score on his college entrance exams and had to settle for the University of Alabama who was interested in the young quarterback and less academically demanding.

Initially, Namath disliked Alabama, disliked most of the people, disliked the prevailing attitudes to skin color, and generally felt alien and isolated. He was not only a swarthy-complexioned son of Hungarian immigrants, but maintained close friendships with African Americans. The Alabama classmates who referred to him as a "nigger-lover" had noted this, while some of his teammates were also resentful because legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant seemed to take Namath under his wing.

By 1964, when Namath finished his final and successful senior year at Alabama, the old New York Titans of the new American Football League had a new owner and a new name, the New York Jets. Entertainment mogul Sonny Werblin had purchased the team, promptly decided that sports should be considered a glitzy form of entertainment, and thus needed a star. Joe Namath left a rather checkered career behind him at Alabama. He was, at one point, suspended from the football squad for directing traffic in downtown Tuscaloosa while intoxicated. Known as something of a rogue, Namath was also a superb and fearless quarterback who liked to take chances both on and off the field. Werblin had found his star. He gave Namath a record-breaking $427,000 contract, including a lavish signing bonus and jobs for the player's brothers, making him truly the first bonus baby in sports. Werblin's lavish terms were offered despite Namath's questionable athletic future; the quarterback underwent knee surgery immediately after his senior season.

Namath's first few years with the Jets were more notable for his off-the-field activities than for his quarterbacking. His hair was alarmingly long, he had numerous girlfriends, and spent many nights drinking and hobnobbing with sportswriters and celebrities in New York City. On one occasion he got into a fist fight with a writer at a club and was fined by the team; on another, he and his African-American teammate Winston Hill tried unsuccessfully to room together during a mid-1960s exhibition game in Birmingham, Alabama. Namath appeared utterly unconcerned with whatever accepted standards of propriety he considered hypocritical, no matter where or to what they applied.

In 1966, the old National Football League negotiated a deal with the new American Football League; each year the champions of each league would face-off in a game called the "Super Bowl," and they agreed to cooperate in matters of drafting and signing players. They planned on an eventual merger, but many were skeptical as to whether the new AFL teams were seriously competitive. The legendary Green Bay Packers, an NFL team, captured the first two Super Bowls. In 1968, Joe Namath and his New York Jets won the American Football League title and earned the right to play in the third Super Bowl.

After the Jets' shocking January 12, 1969, victory over the NFL's Colts, and the enormous publicity accorded Namath's outlandish and entertaining pre-game behavior and comments, the merger was secure. The NFL absorbed the AFL, along with many of the new attitudes toward the sport exemplified by Joe Namath. Then, in the summer of 1969, just as the two leagues were about to merge, Joe Namath stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement from football at the tender age of 26. He had by then bought his own club, the "Bachelors Three," and Football Commissioner Pete Rozelle had offered Namath an ultimatum: sell your nightclub, which Rozelle claimed was frequented by "undesirables," or face indefinite suspension. At a much-publicized press conference held at his club, Namath tearfully said that he had to follow his conscience and leave the game behind. Before the beginning of the new season, though, he reconsidered, sold the club, and went to training camp. He later said a compromise plan worked out between Rozelle and his own attorneys "was against all my instincts."

Namath continued to play for the Jets through the 1976 season, when chronic injuries and age convinced the team to place him on waivers. The Los Angeles Rams picked him up for one more season, and he retired in 1977 at the age of 34.

—Robin Markowitz

Further Reading:

Allen, M. Joe Namath's Sportin' Life. New York, Coronet Communications, Inc., 1969.

Namath, Joe, with D. Schaap. I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow… 'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day. New York, Random House, 1969.

Ralbovsky, M. The Namath Effect. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1976.